A Melodic Comparison: Film Music’s Many Invaluable Personalities | Joe Hisaishi, John Powell

How to Train Your Dragon 2 | New Frontiers and New Worlds

(Heavy spoilers. Also, the previous recommendation of seeing the film/listening to the score beforehand still stands.)

I spent the entirety of the previous section talking about Powell’s work for the franchise. But don’t let that make you think exploring this universe is over. Like what a good sequel should do, both the film and its composer held onto the core values of the first film and expanded upon them: new compositional ideas were purposefully introduced to a soundscape that feels familiar, but matured.

How to Train Your Dragon 2 is considered by many as The Empire Strikes Back of the film series: not only does it expand on the thematic ideas introduced in the world, it takes a turn for the more gritty approaches to storytelling. As a result, Powell spent as much time reprising his old material as he does in establishing all new musical identities for the expanding universe.

“Hopefully I haven’t fucked it up.” – Powell (Collider 2014 interview)

(Who’s really surprised at this point…?) ‘Dragon Racing‘ immediately opens the film with a full reprise of the main theme, this time with stampeding percussion, french horn section and fanfaring trumpets. Berk’s theme takes over as the narrations reintroduces the Viking village to the audience. Again, in typical Powell fashion, the full symphonic onslaught (with an even more populated choir this time) brings forth the rest of the themes for a complete performance. The composer’s mannerisms are even more apparent here: hyperactive compositions, multi-layered theme progressions and a ridiculously overworked brass section. The level of energy doesn’t die down for the entirety of this opening cue.

Having successfully reminded the audience the musical personality of the film, Powell’s new ideas immediately starts to slip in to accommodate the expanded thematic elements. Having spent 5 years flying with Toothless, Hiccup’s explorations of the worlds around their island afforded them a ‘New world’ theme, introduced right in the second track ‘Together We Map the World‘: a beautifully rendered strings and woodwinds-led melody that longs with a sense of romanticism and curiosity. Interestingly, while this musical idea is instrumental to Hiccup’s new persona, the theme takes more of a backseat in the rest of the film, as other ideas quickly overtakes it. Snippets of this thematic element does come up throughout the film, however.

It is important to note, that while new ideas were introduced in the sequel, Powell doesn’t shy away from coming up with new ideas for his old themes. Take the track ‘Hiccup the Chief / Drago’s Coming‘: the new world theme, love theme and the main/flying theme builds a seamless tapestry that complements Hiccup’s aspirations alongside his girlfriend Astrid. However, a potentially grim discovery interrupts the inspirational mood, as the main theme gets plummeted into a minor scale identity at 01:38. Intense percussion marches, eerie choral chants, slashing strings and pounding brass reprises the originally cheery flying theme into a soundscape that reeks of suspense and dread.

Another inspired idea that the composer has concocted for the film but was forced into the background later on, was a musical identity for the dragon sanctuary and the Good Alpha dragon, introduced fully at the beginning of the track ‘Valka’s Dragon Sanctuary‘, which is a sublime example of musical landscaping and melodic creativity (The rest of the cue also explores Powell’s new ‘Lost and found’ theme, which I will get into later).

For the first 50 seconds of the track and final seconds of ‘Losing Mom‘, the audience are treated to a sublime musical sequence, as the composer unleashed all of his tried and true mannerisms with outward confidence. The orchestra’s multiple sections each navigated wildly different compositions that spans across the entire sonic landscape; all simultaneously, I might add. The level of musical knowledge and creative control required for such complex melodic constructs to remain…lyrically palatable is beyond my imagination, and Powell pulled it off splendidly. The grand theme embarked upon by the symphonic and choral colours aimed to portray the utter majesty of the dragon sanctuary and the noble god-like presence of the Good Alpha, as the multiple instrumental sequences glides and soars across the spectrum in multiple flight paths. It’s as if the composer was deliberately trying to musically describe the disposition of the sanctuary: Countless species of mythical dragons that were roosted there, vibrant streaks of colour and light that dangled in front of the audience as the music heralded Hiccup’s astounding discovery.

While the Alpha theme doesn’t get much screen time compared to the themes I will be talking about next, its inclusion in the 2nd act battle scene did give it a welcoming sendoff (along with the Good Alpha, as it meets its unfortunate doom at the hands of a challenger.) ‘Battle of the Bewilderbeast‘ is another vintage Powell action set piece, filled to the brim with symphonic energy and choral textures, and you can hear the Alpha theme being right at home with the old themes (listen for its triumphant outburst at 03:00).

How to Train Your Dragon 2 had an overarching villain. And Powell obviously had to beef up his presence with a menacing theme.

Drago’s theme get its full introduction in the track ‘Meet Drago‘. The conspicuous introduction with trembling strings and the striking of anvils eventually grew into a male choir chant, aided by the full might of the orchestra. As straightforward of a villain theme written for a war-mongering madman as it can be.

As it was unfortunately spoiled in the film trailers, Hiccup’s mother Valka survived the dragon attack that occurred when he was just a baby. Stoick’s tearful reunion with the love of his life is portrayed by John Powell with heartfelt sensitivity, all the while preparing the audience for the brutal ‘payoff’ later on.

Instead of being a repeat of ‘Romantic Flight’, Powell stripped it all back, opting to bring in an intimate ensemble of accordions, harp, fiddle, flute and sleigh bells. The resulting melody is one of humble contentment and quiet honesty. But then, suddenly the audience is hearing the characters singing their wedding song on screen. Tossing in tiny flickers of humour, ‘For the Dancing and the Dreaming’ introduces Stoick and Valka’s love theme with a sense of optimistic and familial warmth. It is merely a break before the storm in this instance, however.

I’ll swim and sail on savage seas
With ne’er a fear of drowning,
And gladly ride the waves of life
If you will marry me.

No scorching sun,
Nor freezing cold,
Will stop me on my journey,
If you will promise me your heart
And love me for eternity.

My Dearest One,
My Darling Dear,
Your mighty words astound me.
But I’ve no need of mighty deeds,
When I feel your arms around me.

But I will bring you rings of gold,
And even sing you poetry,
And I would keep you from all harm
If you would stay beside me.

I have no use for rings of gold,
I care not for your poetry,
I only want your hand to hold,
I only want you near me.

To love and kiss,
to sweetly hold,
For the dancing and the dreaming.
Through all my sorrows and all nights,
I’ll keep your love inside me.

I’ll swim and sail on savage seas
With ne’er a fear of drowning,
And gladly ride the waves of life
If you will marry me.

Within 10 minutes of sharing that song with each other, in the ensuing battle, A (bad) Alpha-hypnotised Toothless was forced to gun down Stoick the Vast, who leaped in front of Hiccup since the plasma blast was originally meant for him. With the wedding song already embedded in the audiences’ minds, one could imagine the emotional impact of seeing the loving village chief lying lifeless next to his only son and surviving widow.

Forming the perfect lyrical presence, the wedding song’s melody was reprised as Powell scores Stoick’s farewell ceremony with overwhelming gravitas. The sensual effect of hearing the wedding song’s melody taken upon by mourning bagpipes, lamenting french horns, a full choral ensemble and orchestral backing is certainly beyond words: one must experience it in order to comprehend it. The track ends with a bittersweet performance of the main theme with noble trumpets, as Hiccup finally takes up the mantle to become the leader in his father’s place.

Musical storytelling. Not pay attention and you might just miss the human journey that film music has taken you upon.

So. After that heartbreak of a section, how do I wrap this up?

John Powell was openly clear about this musical inspirations in scoring this film. A lot of parallel themes that were present pushed him to create a new main musical identity for How to Train Your Dragon 2. While the first film had the flying theme as its emotional anchor, the latter had what he refers to as the ‘Lost and Found’ theme.

With Hiccup losing Toothless and finding him again, Valka losing and reuniting with her son, Stoick thinking he had lost the love of his life, only to find her again…this revolving idea of re-unity, growth and emotional maturity prompted Powell to musically pay tribute in the form of a single overarching idea.

The lost and found theme is first introduced by the brass and strings section, when Hiccup first lost Toothless to a frozen lake in the track ‘Toothless Lost‘ at 01:22, following a mysterious and reoccurring motif that portrays Valka’s alternate dragon herder persona. You can find interesting reprises of the theme in tracks such as ‘Should I Know You?‘ and the inspiringly creative ‘Flying With Mother‘.

However, I do like to spend some time highlighting this theme at its best. The tragic past of a baby Hiccup crying for his mother, whilst in the arms of his father as they witness a dragon carrying her off is musically supported by a choral section in ‘Losing Mom / Meet the Good Alpha‘ at 00:36, beginning with a humming female section, before crescendoing into a passionate, hymn-like sequence.

The 10 minute finale, presented by the tracks ‘Toothless Found‘ and ‘Two New Alphas’ marks the cinematic extravaganza afforded to us by John Powell as the perfect closing act. All the major ideas were back for one last showdown, including some absolutely inspiring sequences starring the lost and found theme, such as at 01:30 of the former track with its wonderful choral buildup and a dense brass-led action reprise. As for ‘Two New Alphas’…just…listen to the whole thing. It’s amazing. (in fact, if I STILL haven’t made that point yet…EVERYTHING about these films’ music are amazing.)

Phew* And with that, this whole saga is complete. Joe Hisaishi and John Powell. Two masters of musical storytelling.

I wrote this long multi-sectioned piece with the sole intent of providing a place for fans of music and animation to truly savour the beauty of film music, all the while giving you more reasons to love Studio Ghibli and animation films in general. The concept of putting music to picture is a wonderful thing to talk about, so this post is for you, fans of animation, reviewers and bloggers about film, YouTubers who talk about anime and movies. I hope I’ve given you something new to love, and I would be over the moon if you decided to experience film music more after reading this. In fact, I would be truly stunned if anyone read this whole thing in one sitting.

Like I mentioned at the beginning. This post was written by myself with the intent of being shared by others, read and re-read, returned back to whenever you want to find inspiration. Or just a place to find good music. So…if you know anyone who could use some beautiful music, or any bloggers, reviewers and YouTubers that you respect and would love them to talk about stuff like this, given them a shoutout.

So. Who are your favourite film composers? Which are your favourite film soundtracks? Sound off below!

Please do note that this was written by a casual musician who has played the piano for some 15 years and sang in an elite high school choir, but has never professionally done either for some years, so my musical knowledge are perhaps only moderately above average. Anyone with more experience in this field may have a chance of finding me making amateur mistakes.

6 thoughts on “A Melodic Comparison: Film Music’s Many Invaluable Personalities | Joe Hisaishi, John Powell

  1. Oh.my.gosh. This is really extensive. Wow. Impressive. Well done. I must confess that I’m not familiar with a lot of the composers you mentioned here, but of course I’m a fan of both Hisaishi and Powell. I love listening to Hisaishi’s Ghibli collection whenever I’m doing household chores because his music put me in a semi-meditative state where my mind is relaxed while my body automatically cleans the house. So instead of feeling tired after doing chores, I actually feel relaxed, even energized. Excellent post, as always. Thanks for sharing this with us at my blog carnival. Keep it up. Cheers!


    • Thank you.

      As per usual, like I wrote in the post, this is a publication meant for extensive revisits, also, I implore you to explore the composers you’re not familiar with. Watch the films, listen to the music, note how they tell their story. As always, this post will be here for you to return to, if you either have problems finding words to describe what you found, or you just need interesting ideas to start exploring.

      I hope this post is a useful eye-opener to perhaps look beyond the purely reactionary reasons as to why you like the film music written by a certain composer.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. What a wonderful, insightful, and thoroughly enjoyable read! The musical pieces were fantastic and the writing was smooth.

    Despite having maybe two hours worth of musical training (I tried), I could follow most of the post, which is great. But needless to say I was taken through an emotional journey through this post and all the musical pieces. I’ve only started to listen to more soundtracks. Now I’m starting to notice and understand a little–of why these great pieces are so effective, and how each of them are unique. It’s certainly fascinating to read and listen to how HIsaishi has evolved (and also returned to his roots). He is one of my favorite composers and that Budokan concert is sublime. How I wish I was there!

    And to answer your question re Deep Sea Pastures, and having not actually watched Ponyo (yet), I actually felt like I was exploring a shiny and colorful world under the sea, filled with diverse sea creatures moving around me, and I was filled with curiosity and excitement like a child. One alternate image I had was being a kid walking through a huge toy store (lots of shiny and colorful things as well)…like…Home Alone 2 sort of, I think. And nearing at the end of the piece, it was as if I was surrounded by something majestic, powerful beyond my control, but benign. Like being surrounded by magnificent, crashing ocean waves. And somehow I still retained that kind, childlike curiosity till the end. If that make sense.

    …Damn, now I just remembered how coral reefs are going to get bleached….polluted…killed off… T_T

    Anyway! Having watched a lot of anime, I really like Yoko Kanno’s works, except people has been saying she just takes other people’s works and modifies it? I don’t know. Hmm…ReLife’s soundtrack is unconventional but I liked it a lot as far as I can hear from the anime. More jazzy piano. Samurai 7 soundtrack is cool, lots of traditional Japanese instruments! But my personal honorable mention goes to Nobuo Uematsu’s “Cloud Smiles” as the first piece of music I’ve ever truly listened to – and what got me into music. Every time I hear woodwinds played so beautifully, I die a little. Also worth the mention I guess is MCU Captain America Winter Soldier’s Theme, which is effectively disturbing. Arcade Fire’s (?) piano pieces for Her are also my favorite – that and Lullaby of Pi!

    Thank you so much for writing this post and sharing this with us. You must’ve put an incredible amount of time and effort into this! I love this post and all the music, and I will definitely return to this post again and again.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Your comment alone already made this 6 month project worth it. Interest in something can only turn to love if you understand what and why you liked it in the first place. I’m glad that the little questions I popped in the posts were responded to so wonderfully by you, and I agree! The ability of music to transform the experience is almost impossible to describe at times.

      From your list of film music you like…Hmm…regarding Yoko Kanno’s plagiarism: every single composer does it one way or another. It is practically a part of the medium, taking ideas from around you and reinventing it. Kanno’s just a lot more guilty of not trying hard enough to hide her inspirations and making them uniquely hers. Remember what I said about Hisaishi taking inspirations from Ravel and Menken’s Mermaid for Ponyo? Also…you have a really diverse canvas of examples from film music. I love that!

      I’m glad this was a great read for you, if this piece made you love film music more, then my job is satisfyingly complete.


  3. Having already seen Ponyo, the mental image I got from this scene might have been a little biased by knowing where this theme comes in. Nevertheless it’s been a while since I’ve seen the film so I’ll describe what I imagined.

    The strings and choir softly starting up before getting louder almost seemed like a sunrise. The vast sea is slowly waking up and emerging from some sort of sleep. Then when the sound starts to pick up, the scope of the scene hits me. We are in a vast space, and the ocean IS vast. But the flutes that come in give a sense of detail-they’re the fish flitting about reef, and there are alot of them. The track feels extremely filled out (not sure what musical jargon describes this feeling), I just feel life brimming from every note of the piece!

    Liked by 1 person

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